Euripides' The Trojan Women
Translated by Nicholas Ruddall
The Shakespeare Theatre Washington, D.C., 23 March - 8 May 1999
Reviewed by Susan Joseph
JoAnne Akalaitis's critically acclaimed production of The Trojan Women in a new translation by University of Chicago classics professor Nicholas Ruddall was the first Greek tragedy ever produced by the Shakespeare Theatre. The largely subscription audience was ready; their applause was as warm as the critics'. "Riveting and terrifying at the same time" was the comment of the Baltimore Sun reviewer. The Washington Post critic concluded: "This is a production of enormous, disciplined integrity, of tact raised to the point of genius."
This new production has qualities in common with the two most recent stagings of the play in Washington. Like Robert MacNamara whose Women of Troy was seen at the Scena Theatre on Seventh Street in October of 1997, Akalaitis uses the play to make us think about the plight of refugees in our own times. Like Suzuki Tadashi who produced The Trojan Women at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in May of 1985, Akalaitis includes on-stage rape, a setting from World War II, a continuous musical score, and expressive movement. But while both MacNamara and Suzuki Tadashi aimed for a small audience of connoisseurs, Akalaitis's vision, though searing, is more welcoming to a larger audience.
Although making reason yield to feeling, Akalaitis does preserve the paratactic structure of the play. Under her direction the action unfolds musically, like a requiem happening to statues who have been brought to life. A choral entrance (parodos) and choral ending (exodos) frame the three great acts of Euripides's play. Each act is centered on a royal princess who speaks with Hecuba, Queen of Troy. First comes the mad virgin prophetess Cassandra, Hecuba's daughter; Cassandra is followed by Hecuba's ideal daughter-in-law Andromache and then by Hecuba's demon daughter-in-law, Menelaus's unfaithful wife Helen of Sparta whose beautiful appearance and bad acts lie at the root of the Trojan War.
Nicholas Ruddall's translation is a fairly straightforward and idiomatic rendering of the ancient Greek, and, like Akalaitis's direction, it emphasizes act over word, sliding over the Greek word logos which means word or speech. Ruddall sets the dominance of act over speech from the very beginning, in the cosmic prologue, and acts continue to rule words to the very end of the play. When the gods Poseidon and Athena conclude a pact to punish the Greeks, Poseidon's Greek text tells Athena that the favour she seeks from him does not require great speeches; in the new translation Poseidon says: "You need speak no more." After Hecuba's opening threnody with the chorus and Cassandra's full blown mad scene, Andromache enters with bad news. Andromache tells Hecuba of her daughter Polyxena's murder and then attempts to comfort Hecuba by telling her that the dead are better off than the living. Here the Greek says, "Listen to my most beautiful speech."
Instead, Ruddall has Andromache commence not with any commendation for her own persuasive powers but with the words beginning her argument: "But the dead are as if they had never been born." As Andromache cradles Hecuba in her arms, the tenderness of the Greek poet, which Akalaitis frequently mentioned during rehearsals, overwhelms his rhetoric. When Hecuba receives the dead body of her grandson Astyanax on the shield of her dead son Hector, she speaks a line that Michael Cacoyannis made the climax of his filmed version of this tragedy. Hecuba says that she hates fear that has not been put through examination by reason (logos). Ruddall reduces this line to "There is no reason, none." After Helen speaks in her own defense, Ruddall has the chorus tell Hecuba not, as in the Greek, to destroy Helen's persuasiveness but to "kill her words." Less than ten lines from the end of Euripides's text Hecuba asks The Trojan Women, "Have you understood, have you heard?" Ruddall's Hecuba asks not for reason, but simply for perception: "Did you see, Oh did you see? Did you hear?" Akalaitis has called on us all to witness if not to understand. Her production is a muted postmodern collage, not extreme like Andrei Serban's and Elizabeth Swados's polyglot 1996 revival of their 1974 production of The Trojan Women at LaMama in New York City. For the New York production Euripides's text provided images and characters, amplified and expanded in the rehearsal process to become a blending of languages, cultures, races and even species in the service of Artaud's theatre of cruelty; in Washington, Euripides's dramatic kernel received a radical re-scening in which the survivors' dignified acts overshadowed the words of their sufferings.
The set (Paul Steinberg) at the Shakespeare Theatre is claustrophobic: it suggests a holding room in front of a ruined two-story building whose loudly crashing metal doors look and sound as if they hide extermination ovens behind them. Seen this way, the frequently voiced propositions that the captive Trojan women will sail away on Greek ships with their new Greek husbands to their new homes in the various kingdoms of Greece seem like promises in a fairy tale, cruel fictions whose purpose is to ready the victims for the fire that will finally destroy them along with their city. The only visible signs of the sea mentioned so often in Euripides's text are the toy sailboat and crisp sailor suit of the doomed little prince Astyanax. For an audience in Washington the holocaust setting has at least a triple valence: some audience members may have lived through those times; some may have seen the atrocities reproduced in the National Holocaust Museum which a little over a mile from the Shakespeare Theatre; and all will be aware that the history of genocide seems to be repeating itself in many parts of the world.
How odd then, that the two published reviews of this staging failed to give any idea of the acts of Gestapo style violence added at the beginning of this production or the hidden gas ovens. Akalaitis's opening owes more to Seneca, Suzuki and Serban than it does to Euripides. The text of Euripides's play begins with a monologue by the god Poseidon who is then joined by the goddess Athena and there will be only three male characters on stage: the messenger Talthybius, the cuckold Menelaus, and the victim Astyanax. Akalaitis's production begins not with cosmic speech but with acts of wanton human cruelty. A mute ensemble of soldiers in blue riot gear march six blindfolded women of the chorus and three blindfolded mute women prisoners on stage. The captive women's heads are shaved and they wear smocks that make them appear like men, women and children waiting to bathe in gas ovens. Some of these women are raped, mainly off stage, and one stumbles back on stage nude to wash the marauders' filth off of herself. One of the marauders saunters back in buttoning his fly.
The acting ensemble is finely tuned, each chorus member projecting a definite personality and unique physical type, and each principal radiant. If the gods are diminished by their costumes and mannerisms, the three royal Trojan women, Hecuba, Cassandra, and Andromache, and prince Astyanax wear their beauty and timeless elegant robes (costumes by Doey Luthi) as badges of godlike nobility. Jack Willis as Poseidon sits on the stage holding his helmet, the last remnant of his godhead. Doll-like Jade Wu is a voluble Athena sporting silly Woody Woodpecker red plumes made from a red nylon scrubbing brush. Petronia Paley as Hecuba is earth and soul, the ever-present tender ground on which all the others play. On stage from beginning to end, Paley elegantly portrays a full range of sadness and outrage, and even suggests twice the mad dog that another tradition says she will become rather than sailing to Ithaca with Odysseus. Opal Alladin is a chthonic Cassandra whose arms writhe and rattle like snakes and whose voice and body veer between speech, song, and dance. As she runs down with a blazing marriage torch from the upper story of the stage house, she reawakens the memory of her cosmic connection, but as she caresses her mother Cassandra is fully human.
On Socorro Santiago as Andromache rests the first unbearable dramatic climax of the play: she enters wailing caged on a simple cart carrying her dead husband's bright shield and her son Astyanax, every mother's dream of sweet baby love as played by seven-year-old Garrett Martin Schiponi. Rather than competing, as one might expect from reading the Greek, Andromache and Hecuba take turns comforting each other. Andrew Long as the messenger Talthybius is the antiheroic counterpart to the brave Hecuba, which is not to say that like her he does not have a moment of understanding. But Hecuba's realization that all hope is lost, that the gods will never save her is permanent; Talthybius's realization that he can feel pity, that he is no good at carrying out murder, is only temporary. Just as in the opening she emphasized human guilt in the face of silly and ineffective gods, Akalaitis shines a spotlight on the faulty Talthybius's humanity. Talthybius's finest moment is protracted in a tableau; first Astyanax is allowed a brief whimpering scamper away from his guards and then the action freezes as the little boy is borne atop a Laocoon-like pyramid of guards and grieving women while Talthybius intones, "I'm not very good at this. You need a man with a heart of stone. It's too painful...I hate it."
All but proclaiming the banality of evil two comic characters appear to relieve the tension after Astyanax disappears. Menelaus is played soft and spoiled by Jonathan Fried. Helen slinky in her soigne coiffure, red suit, spike heels, and black gloves is played like a brilliant young trial attorney by the numismatically serene Elizabeth Long. In a sparkling courtroom scene Helen defends herself, Hecuba plays prosecutor, and Menelaus rules for Hecuba. But Helen wins, despite Hecuba's brilliant words, by the simple act of showing her wrist to the swooning Menelaus.
The captive women's chorus's function is to lead the audience's emotional response. They move with precision and sing with clearness of tone. Composer Lisa Bielawa's haunting continuous score alternates among several modes: individual speech, choral speech, solo recitative, solo song, unison song, and six-part polyphonic hymns. In harmony with Bielawa's score, Dana Tai Soon Burgess's stylized choreography and Jennifer Tipton's often stark lighting effects give the production a formal quality. The spectacle of Astyanax's bloodied little body resting first on his father's shield and then cradled in his grandmother's arms as in an early Michelangelo Pieta may bring tears but in the end this austere production still allows the audience to think about the problems of war. To win the victors must take all. At the end a bright white light washes color away from Hecuba and the women captives just as the poor raped woman washed herself clean in the prologue. Those women remaining all stalwartly march, following the pattern initiated by upright Cassandra and Andromache, towards their fate. Red lights burn from behind the stage building. Troy is ash and flames. The Greek fleet waits. The stage is bare. No words. Only the memory of acts.
Susan Joseph, Ph. D.
Catholic University of America